Did the Roman Empire Invade Ireland?

Ireland was only a breath away from getting swallowed by the Roman Empire, which held Britain under its firm hand.

Jan 25, 2022By Saran Magennis, BA Archaeology w/ Honors
roman empire map triumph british sword

 

The Roman Empire wanted to control the entire hemisphere and it comfortably controlled Britain for four hundred years. It seems extremely likely that an invasion or attempted occupation of Ireland would have occurred. So did the Romans invade Ireland? Let’s find out.

 

The Roman Empire in Western Europe

rome greatest extent western europe
The Roman Empire at its greatest extent, 3rd century CE, via Calgary University

 

The Romans had managed to incorporate the southern half of Britain into their territory under the leadership of Julius Caesar by the end of the 1st century CE. With this incorporation, the tribes of both Britain and Gaul were now aligned to the Roman Empire both militarily, culturally, and, to some extent, religiously. It is important to understand that at this point in history, the name Briton was solely reserved for those people who accepted some part of Roman culture and aligned themselves to the Roman Empire, whether through force or choice. The indigenous people of Britain were allotted a different name. Latin scholars referred to them as the Caledonii or Picti. They were the ones who moved beyond the Roman province and later beyond Hadrian’s wall to avoid Roman rule.

 

Agricola’s Irish Prince

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Agricola among Roman generals and emperors, by William Brassey Hole, 1897, via National Galleries Scotland

 

The possible intrusion into Ireland dates back almost 2,000 years when the Roman Empire was pushing into the home of the last remaining native free tribes of Britain, the Pretani. This is quite clearly a possible source for Caesar’s Latin name given to the territory: Britannia. At this point in history, Agricola was the governor of the Roman province. He governed from 77 to 84 CE, and his story was recorded by Tacitus, his son-in-law. In his work titled Agricola, Tacitus gave more than a hint towards an invasion of Ireland.

 

Tacitus recorded that, by the end of the fourth season of the campaigns (80 CE), Agricola had successfully subjugated the central Caledonians. It then seems he had turned back in his course to find himself in either Kintyre or Galloway in southwest Scotland, from where he could have easily gazed across the Irish sea to see what is now Ireland. It is probable that this is when Agricola began to contemplate and prepare for an Irish invasion, which would have included readying the fabled Ninth Legion.

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According to Tacitus, Agricola had in his company an Irish chieftain who had been driven from his home during a native uprising. Agricola treated him as a friend, hoping to one day make use of him. Tacitus recalled that his father-in-law stated on multiple occasions that Ireland could be held with one legion and few auxiliaries. The source of this information, as well as the geography of Ireland, could well have come from Agricola’s exiled Irish comrade.

 

Tacitus also recorded that in “the fifth year of the campaigns, crossing in the leading ship, [Agricola] defeated peoples up until that time unknown in a series of successful actions”. While some have suggested that West Scotland was the target, it has been proposed that traveling by ship into Caledonian territory doesn’t quite make sense and this has led to speculation that the uncharted territory was indeed Ireland.

 

The majority of scholars acknowledge the verse “Navi in proxima transgressus” to mean “travelling into neighboring territory by ship”. From the area of the southwest coast of Scotland, Co. Antrim in Ireland is as little as 13 miles away. Could Agricola, as Alfred Gudeman suggests, have been “the first Roman to set foot on Ireland”?

 

It’s important to note that even if Agricola possibly traveled to the island of Ireland, he never completely conquered the land or people there. Shortly after this period, the North Caledonians formed an uprising that would eventually be the cause for the battle of Mons Graupius in 83 CE, after which Agricola was recalled to Rome in 84 CE. However, Agricola’s discovery and his likely journeys across the sea may have been the start of a long line of Roman invasions in the coming centuries.

 

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Engraved title-page ‘Juvenalls Satyrs’, by Thomas Rawlins, 1645-1670, via British Museum

 

The final Roman literary evidence for an invasion of Ireland comes from a piece of poetry. Juvenal was a Flavian poet born into the Roman Empire in the 1st century but was later exiled. In his Satires, he states that “Romans arms have been taken beyond the shores of Ireland, and recently conquered the Orkneys”. He supposedly wrote this around 100 CE, some two decades after Agricola and his ‘Irish Prince’ could have landed there.

 

Tuathal, the First Goidel: Was He Agricola’s Irish Prince?

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Conversion of Goidels to Christianity, 1905, via National Library of Wales

 

Ancient Irish literature is most often read as tales that were unfortunately misinterpreted by Christian scholars. However, some of the greatest scholars of Ireland have found shadows of truth in some of the legends.

 

It just so happens that a similar story appears in Irish legends and later medieval poetry about a returning Irish chieftain named Tuathal who had been exiled in a native uprising. He is said to have returned from Britain after twenty years with an army to conquer parts of the Irish midlands.

 

The oldest reference to Tuathal comes from the 9th-century poet Mael Mura, who spoke of his thirty-year reign at Tara, and his later death in 136 CE. The timeline of Tuathal’s legend seems to coincide with the tale of Agricola and his chieftain friend. If he truly returned from Britain to his homeland after the expedition with Agricola, then he became the next leader of Tara.

 

The Goidels are an important people of Irish prehistory. However, it is most likely that they came to Ireland from Britain. The name Goidel is derived from the Brythonic word ‘Guidil’ (raider or foreigner). This further hints towards their origin. Their name was probably adopted in Britain before they invaded Ireland and, from then on, known as the Goidels.

 

These two stories coincide, Tuathal returned to Ireland from Britain with an army made up of both Goidels and Romano-Britons, and in Goidel histories, they name Tuathal as the first Goidel.

 

By the early Medieval times in Ireland, the Goidels had seized possession of some of Ireland’s greatest Pagan sites. Legends state that they became the leading authority in places such as Tara in Co. Meath, Clogher in Tyrone, and Cashil in Munster.

 

Their Roman influence is apparent as they used the Latin word ‘Cashil’ for castle for their sites,  and archaeologists have found only Roman or Romano-British Iron age material and no native Irish material of that time.

 

Lambay Island and Drumanagh Fort Dublin

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Ptolemy’s Map of Ireland, 2nd century, via National Museum of Ireland

 

Lambay Island lies just off the coast of Dublin, where the burials of Romano-Briton warriors dated to the 1st century CE were discovered in 1927. Among the remains were five Romano-British brooches, scabbard mounds, a bronze finger ring, an iron mirror, a broken Iron sword, and a torc, a popular Romano-British neck ring.

 

It has been suggested that the deceased were Romanized Britons, possibly of the Brigantes tribe. Due to Ptolemy’s map of the British Isles from the 2nd century, there is evidence that the Brigantes most likely lived in both Northern Britain and southeast Ireland during this time.

 

Ptolemy mentioned that ‘Lismoy’ (later Lambay) was uninhabited at this time. However with this new evidence, scholars can assume that Ptolemy’s source material was outdated and that Romano-Britons were living on the island from as early as the late 1st century.

 

Recently, items discovered at the coastal site of Drumanagh just north of Dublin have made scholars believe that the Romans could have been there during their military campaigns of the 1st and 2nd centuries, using the coast as a beachhead.

 

The word Drumanagh comes from the same linguistic derivation as Manapii. The Manapii were an offshoot of a continental sea-faring people, at times recorded as the Menapii. They had given Caesar trouble in the previous century before he subjugated and pacified many of these tribes, incorporating them into the Roman Empire. They had outposts in Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, and according to Ptolemy’s map, they inhabited the Dublin area.

 

The Manapii had close connections to the Brigantes. It’s possible that the Roman Empire had used Menapian Gauls or Menapian auxiliaries of Britain in small intrusions into Ireland and were the source of the clusters of Romano-British material. It’s also possible that they assisted the Goidels in their return and may have been made up of ex-auxiliaries of Agricola’s army. By 400 CE, the ‘Notitia Dignitatum’ lists two Menapian legions.

 

romano british sword upper part photograph
The upper part of a Romano-British sword, 1st century CE, via British Museum

 

Barry Raferty, an Irish historian, was one of the very few people to have seen a few of the finds of Drumanagh, which remain legally restricted and are not being released to the public. Raferty states that they were, in fact, Roman. He went on to write a book “Pagan Ireland” in which he sheds insight on the items found, according to him, by an illegal metal detector.  The finds include Roman pottery, Roman coins dating to the reigns of Titus (CE 79-81), Trajan (98-117), and Hadrian (117-138), as well as Roman brooches and copper ingots, among other items of Roman origin.

 

Archaeological Evidence in Support of the Roman Empire in Ireland

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Map showing locations where Roman artifacts were recovered from Irish Midlands/South, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 51, 1945 – 1948, via JSTOR

 

It was a rather lucky incident that Caesar’s work Gallo Wars has survived, for if not, we would have never known about Julius Caesar’s first attempt to take Britain. The reason is that no archaeological evidence has ever proven this invasion. In Ireland, I believe we are wrong to look for evidence of a complete conquest. Instead, I aim to show that a Romanized presence is clear, and native Irish aristocrats and their culture was replaced by a Roman ideology.

 

In Ireland, we have Roman and Romano-British material, which just so happens to be associated with Tuathal legends and his Goedelic successors. Places such as the Boyne Valley sites of Newgrange, Tara and Knowth, Clogher in Tyrone, and especially the southeast coast are all associated with Tuathal in legend and coincidently have the majority of Roman Romano-British material in Ireland.

 

Tuathal is said to have captured the Neolithic ritual site known as Tara in Co. Meath when he returned. One portion of this site is referred to as the Synods of Tara, and has produced a fair amount of Roman material such as wine vessels, a broach, dividers, two Roman padlocks, and a decorated lead seal. Significantly, iron-age native Irish material has not been recovered from this portion of Tara, indicating the occupants were Roman and not natives enjoying the benefits of Roman trade.

 

newgrange roman coins
Roman Coins from Newgrange Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 77, 1977, via JSTOR

 

Newgrange and Knowth are considered in the same vicinity as Tara, bundled together as the Boyne Valley monuments. At least twenty-five Roman coins were discovered at Newgrange along with Romano-British fragmented torcs and brooches and rings. The coins were spread out deliberately at one section of the site, in a votive offering style, reminiscent of how Romanized citizens would place coins in a sacred manner.

 

A site strongly associated with the Goidels and, to some extent, Tuathal, was Fremain, now called Frewin Hill in Co. Westmeath. Once again, there is evidence to support that the Goidels were a Romanized tribe because at Loch Lene, not far from Fremain, a Roman boat was discovered. It has been confirmed as a construction method of Roman Britain and was crafted by Roman hands in around the 1st century CE, according to radiocarbon dating.

 

One of Tuathal’s most important conquests was the tribe of modern Leinster, and the taking of their native site of Knockaulin. Here, even more Romano British objects have been found, including two bronze brooches dated to the 1st century. Unfortunately, the site was abandoned in the early Christian period and even partially burnt.

 

The earthwork complex at Clogher in Co. Tyrone produced no Iron Age native Irish material. However, it did produce several early Roman or Romano British items. It was said to have been constructed by a local woman named ‘Baine’ who was both a local valley goddess and the mother of Fedelmin Rechtaids, who was none other than the son of Tuathal.

 

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Romano-British Brooch, discovered River Bann, via Archaeology Ireland, 10(3), 1993, via Academia

 

These included a Romano-British brooch of the 1st century CE, which is of particular interest as it is gilded. This means that it was extremely rare among brooches in Britain and Ireland, and indicates a high status level for its owner. Also among the finds were items of glazed pottery which had clear parallels to 1st century Roman-British pottery.

 

Roman Burials in Ireland?

roma glass urn stoneyford
Roman glass urn from Stoneyford, Co. Kilkenny, Archaeology Ireland, 3(2), 1989, via JSTOR

 

A small number of sites in Ireland have produced burial goods indicating a Roman presence, especially Stoneyford, Co. Kilkenny in southeast Ireland. Cremated remains were found placed in a glass urn. It was accompanied by a glass phial for cosmetics and a bronze mirror. This sort of burial was typical of the Roman middle class in the 1st century CE and suggests the presence of a small Roman community in Ireland’s southeast region.

 

Other burials associated with Romans and Romano-Britons have been uncovered at Bray Head, Co. Wicklow. The deceased were buried with stones at their head and feet and accompanied by copper coins of Trajan (97-117 CE) and Hadrian (117-138 CE). This may relate to the Roman burial custom of placing coins in the mouths and eyes of the deceased.

 

The finds from Lambay Island and Bray Head, mentioned above, are similar in date and bear a resemblance to the material from Drumanagh promontory fort. These sites are located in a somewhat close context, and if nothing else, represent closer ties with the Roman Empire in the midlands of Ireland, compared to the north and west of Ireland.

 

While it has been suggested that trade is reason enough for the distribution of certain Roman artifacts on native Irish sites, many of these sites where items of the Roman culture have been discovered, have provided little to no native Irish material of the same period. This is especially true at the site of Synods of Tara, alongside the earthwork complex of Clogher and Cashil in the South.

 

The Roman material of Ireland is not in excess. However it is found in dense amounts in the mentioned areas above. Furthermore, the Irish had, as it seems, enjoyed the benefits of a La Tene trade, and for the majority, were not interested in the trinkets that Roman influencers had to offer.

 

The Roman Empire’s Influence on the Irish 

roman bronze figure boyne ireland
Roman Bronze figurine (recovered from Boyne valley), via National Museum of Ireland

 

It’s clear that there was some sort of intrusion and that those aligned with the Roman Empire had made several small incursions into Ireland, even replacing some native leadership. It seems there was no large-scale military intervention. Instead, groups of Romanized tribes from Western Europe over multiple centuries were able to Romanize Ireland. The main unanswered question remains: was this an official intrusion? Or merely people aligning with the ever-expanding Roman Empire, taking on the Roman way of life?

 

The motivation for an Irish invasion from the Roman Empire was well known. Tacitus stated “More of Britain would be prosperous if Roman forces were everywhere and freedom was taken out of view”. While he also confirms how trade for the entire West would run smoother for the Roman Empire if Ireland was conquered stating:

 

“Ireland is positioned between Britain and Spain and is easily accessible from the seas around Gaul. It would untie the strongest parts of our Empire with great mutual advantage.”

 

So, Did the Roman Empire Invade Ireland?

roman triumph painting
A Roman Triumph, anonymous, 16th century, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The Irish of the post Iron Age, known as the Medieval Period, have long been understood to be more culturally, religiously, and politically aligned to post Roman Britain, than that of the native Iron-age culture and beliefs that existed in Pagan Ireland. A Roman presence cannot be denied, and whether or not through force, the Irish were certainly slowly Romanized.

 

Irish legend alone cannot prove a Roman invasion of Ireland, nor can the sole account of a few Roman sources such as Tacitus. The collection of small archaeological items, associated with the legends, among the lucky surviving accounts from a few sources, all bundled together, point heavily towards a Roman intrusion that had lasting effects on the native Irish way of life.



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By Saran MagennisBA Archaeology w/ HonorsI have studied the ancient, and somewhat forgotten past of both the United Kingdom and Ireland, in addition to general European and world history, for several years. The focus of my studies resides in archeology, genealogy, and scholarly history; this vast and all-encompassing field of study has enabled me to have a balanced outlook on my chosen topics. I take pride in my ability to academically research, and combine that factual information with personal knowledge in order to provide historical writing with accuracy, an open mind, and a modern voice.